Right now, our present situation looks pretty dark. While it is too soon to see the light at the end of the tunnel, we can rest assured it will come. We will emerge on the other side and when we come into the daylight, but we will face a different reality from the one we left behind.
One of the biggest differences is that we will become more digital. The danger is we may feel more isolated, more alone and more dehumanized. We will work more at home, shop at home, and even receive our healthcare through a screen. Ask the parent of any teenage boy, it will be harder to get anyone to come out of their room.
At the same time, we will flock to regain the human interaction that has been withheld from us. We will relish in the simple things we had to give up, like going to the park, eating in a restaurant or going on vacation.
The test will be how we balance these two opposing forces. A part of the answer is to make the digital more human and more intimate. Maintain a personal touch whether the experience is face-to-face or screen-to-screen. Look around you, it’s already happening. Here’s to the virtual happy hour. No matter how much we will change, we will and must remain human.
For knowledge and information workers, the prospects are brighter. Anyone with internet connectivity and their laptops are mastering the art of working at home. In China, tens of millions of workers have shifted to working at home. The same patterns are happening across Europe and North America. And it looks like this pattern will continue indefinitely, potentially changing the very nature of work for many, many people. Work-at-home may become the norm for significant segments of the population.
In addition to connectivity, the biggest issue these workers face is communications and access to corporate knowledge, in other words, the ability to do their jobs and remain a part of teams and the culture. And we haven’t really even started talking about security. There is a lot to get used to working at home. It will be easy for some and a challenge for others. In any case, organizations, public and private, for and non-profit will require significant investment and upgrades in digital infrastructure and change management to support the radical change new Work-at-home workers are experiencing and which are most likely to become the new workplace norms.
Staying at home will impact more than just work. In the United States, the economy is highly dependent on consumers continuing to spend. And right now, the only outlet for spending is from the home. In the services sector, we are seeing restaurants shifting their business to operating as take-out and delivery. In Seattle, one of the finest restaurants in the region, Canlis, has started up a drive-thru bagel business in the morning and gourmet burgers in the afternoon. While no one is getting rich, it keeps the lights on and employees working. Meanwhile, among the national chains, Pizza Hut, a division of Yum Brands, announced it is looking to fill 30,000 new permanent job openings. Papa John’s plans to hire 20,000 workers immediately.
For grocers and convenience stores, there is an unprecedented spike in business requiring them to hire across the United States. Kroger is hiring 10,000 new associates. 7-Eleven will add 20,000 positions. Safeway has already added 2,000 jobs in addition to giving all existing employees a raise. A part of this hiring spree will be devoted to expanding curbside and home delivery offerings.
In the retail sector, both Walmart and Amazon announced they will be adding 150,000 positions each to handle the uptick in online shopping. Quantum Metric, a predictive retail analytics firm, has shown a 52% increase in revenue growth rate during the period at the end of January and the beginning of February, during the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak. Since then, shop-at-home is accelerating, producing radical growth in ecommerce and fueling a new normal in the shop-at-home economy.
IPerhaps the most important and fundamental digital and societal change we are seeing is in the area of healthcare. CVS Health plans to add 50,000 new employees to support telemedicine and other health from home initiatives. Medical device manufacturers are being called upon to dramatically increase production of ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE). Medtronic has pledged to increase production by 40% and companies including General Motors and Tesla have been enlisted to shift their production facilities to manufacture badly needed medical devices.
Hospitals are frantically working to double their capacity, especially for intensive care facilities needed to treat COVID-19 patients. Rural hospitals which have been closing at alarming rates over the last few years, may be reopened. Retired doctors and nurses are being recruited and while the immediate crisis may only last a few months, the impact to healthcare will undoubtedly last much longer.
The biggest change to healthcare, in both the short term, but extending into the long term, will be the exponential growth and adoption of connected healthcare solutions including telemedicine, with an emphasis on improved patient and healthcare professional experiences. The demand for telehealth solutions has skyrocketed, currently overburdening existing systems and programs. At the same time, major healthcare providers like Humana and UnitedHealthcare have committed to making telehealth solutions available to all their customers.
A smaller company, Health Recovery Solutions, which provides remote monitoring kits for home use saw a 250% jump in orders in February 2020. It is immediately expanding its warehouse and shipping capacity from 2,000 kits to more than 10,000 kits.
Telehealth is representative of a much broader category – Connected Health. Better connectivity is enabling healthcare providers to leverage new technologies to improve clinical outcomes and drive both patient and physician satisfaction. Earlier this year, Zimmer Biomet launched Mymobility, a mobile application that uses iPhones, Apple Watches and a sophisticated global content hub to connect patients directly with their surgeons. The experience guides patients through a customized and connected pre and postoperative patient experience. The software provides education, tracking and engagement in real time, dramatically improving the patient outcomes.
Finally, an international non-profit, iRespond, has developed a non-touch method of establishing and verifying identity while protecting privacy using a combination of Blockchain and iris scanning tools. It is being piloted in Asia and Africa and supported by major NGOs, including International Rescue Committee, Johns Hopkins, and Microsoft Philanthropies.
The stories above are just a few examples of the explosive innovation taking place to improve our ability to stay healthy at home or to connect with a doctor when sick.
But what are we to make of all this change? What does the world look like after we weather COVID-19? Well, the genie is certainly out of the bottle. We will never go back to the way we were before. The world has awakened to the dangers of not being better prepared for the next pandemic.
The world will survive the Corona virus, but the cost will be too great to ignore. There will be fundamental shifts in the way we live our lives, personally and professionally. New norms will alter the way we interact with people, organizations and institutions.
What will we need to respond to new requisites for health, safety, interaction and productivity? Some solutions already exist, and others will entail radical innovation. All will require public private partnership and commitment. The bottom line is that the answers we seek must involve new ways to integrate all three elements, people, processes, and technology.
History is ripe with examples of transformative technologies evolving out of crises. The Trojan horse changed the balance of power in ancient Greece. The printing press can be credited for the growth of the Reformation and the Renaissance. Commercial aviation was accelerated decades because of World War I and World War II that gave us the nuclear age. Perhaps the most transformative technology of our own age, the Internet, was created in response to the Cold War.
The current crisis will be no different. It is bound to advance new technologies, require new ways of doing things on a massive scale and will profoundly impact the way we live our daily lives. In particular, there are three areas where transformational change will happen – commerce, knowledge management, and healthcare.
Knowledge and Communication
Until the end of the 19th century, most people worked where they lived. Beyond the agricultural countryside, towns and cities were filled with small business owners who lived above the shop. It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution and the rise of large corporations that the world began to physically separate home and work. After the end of WWII, and with the help of the automobile, this trend spawned the rise of subdivisions and suburban living in the United States. In more recent decades, a similar pattern has arisen across much of Europe and large cities around the world. As work and home became separated, traffic congestion, the homogenization of communities and a social divide between our work and home lives began to emerge.
All of this began to change again with the advent of the information age and the availability of high-speed internet connectivity to the home. Since 2000, the number of people working from home in the United States has increased by almost 60%. In recent months, this number has more than doubled. While hard data is not yet available, example of some key data points suggest a sea change in the way people are working. In Italy, Telecom Italia reported an increase of Internet traffic rose over 90% when schools closed, and youngsters stayed home. In Seattle, when Amazon and Microsoft told their employees to work from home, Internet usage went up 30% in one week. As more and more people get used to working from home, the likelihood of our society returning to business as usual post virus, is small. Pandora’s box has been permanently opened.
However, working from home is not as simple as it sounds. In addition to the basic technology infrastructure and broadband connectivity, there are real people and process issues that need to be addressed. When people lose the spontaneous personal interaction “around the water cooler,” not only social interaction, but productivity can be lost. Businesses have invested in easy instant messaging applications like Slack, Google Hangouts, or Microsoft Teams. And different collaboration tools are used for other interactions – Google Docs, Trello, Basecamp, Jira, and Skype.
Security is another giant issue. As companies continue to shift to work-at-home models, they will require significant improvements in their security protocols and amp up the capabilities of their virtual private networks (VPNs). Right now, tens of thousands of financial services employees are working from home, but can they do their jobs without accessing your account and personal data? What about the IRS? What about the Big 4 auditing firms? Regardless of where you fall on the privacy rights question, there is an emerging need for service providers to access your private account information away from traditional offices and network security.
Finally, there’s the issue of enterprise knowledge resources, IP and proprietary processes. Global companies have been spending billions to make content and knowledge accessible to their employees, partners, and customers. Commonly, this takes the form of knowledge portals. But also, typically, they have been built up over time as local, one-off solutions with inconsistent architecture, variable performance and a largely un unsophisticated approach to managing content workflow, findability and governance.
On a global scale, most knowledge portals are not managed from a centralized point. They do not have the means to easily share content across markets, business groups or entities. More often than not, they do not have a consistent strategy or program for professionally translating critical content into local languages.
Corporate content is in the process of shifting from being a cost center to being seen as an enterprise asset. With increased work-from-home requirements, this will become even more apparent. As a senior executive at one of the Big 4 auditing firms said, “If we just knew what we know, we would be wildly successful”. Enterprise knowledge portals, well-constructed and managed will become in the next 5 years, at minimum, the cost of doing business and most likely a key to competitive advantage.
How will this be achieved? The solution is a content hub approach, where all content and the requisite workflow is managed using a single set of integrated systems – digital asset management, content management, search and publishing. From a process standpoint, companies will need to be more efficient creating, distributing and evaluating the content they produce.
Since not all content is created equal, firms will need to understand and implement programs, processes and systems that present the right content to the right person in the right context and in the right language. It requires a clear and detailed understanding of who the consuming audiences are and how they want to consume the content being offered.
For example, a senior partner at a global law firm is looking for specialized content. An executive at a global beverage company needs quick access to information geared to her role. And when a senior practitioner at a Big Four firm looks up reference material for an audit, she must have the confidence that the content in question is accurate and up to date.
Most companies, no matter how large or complex, do not have the strategy, design thinking and systems architecture expertise in house. They will need to find a partner consultancy to help them understand how their systems can best work together to produce the desired outcome.
Even before the coronavirus hit, commerce was changing rapidly. According to a recent study, worldwide, B2C ecommerce sales grew from $1.3 Trillion (2014) to a projected $4.9 Trillion (2021). B2B ecommerce is even bigger. In the US alone, B2B ecommerce is projected to hit $1.18 Trillion by 2021. As a percentage of total global retail sales, ecommerce has grown from 7.4% (2015) to a projected 17.5% (2021), a 236% increase. That’s before factoring any impact of the coronavirus crisis. Given the recent acceleration of these trends, it is fair to say that the growth rate will be significant, and it is unlikely people completely revert back to offline sales once the crisis is over.
Ecommerce providers, retailers, and manufacturers will be required to step up and meet the ever-increasing expectations of customers who presume an enhanced experience. Successful companies will focus on the customer, their preferences, and their history to create a contextualized, individualized experience, delivered regardless of channel, device or platform.
At the heart of the digital commerce experience will be a global content and commerce hub, melding traditional CMS, DAM, translation and ecommerce systems together with AI and machine learning environments, where personalization at scale can be achieved and delivered across the board.
Companies can’t go it alone. To be successful, enterprises should partner with a digital experience service provider that understands the relationships between people, processes and technology and has demonstrated experience delivering integrated solutions.
Keeping people healthy and saving lives is top of mind of every healthcare professional right now, in the middle of this pandemic. There are thousands of top minds in every country working around the clock to develop medical solutions to both treat and prevent people from getting and spreading the virus. There are an equal number of healthcare professionals focused, not on the medical side of the equation, but the logistics and operational part of the puzzle. How to reconfigure hospitals to handle the surge of patients. How to obtain all the PPE and ventilators needed and how to manage the flow of people who could potentially crash the entire healthcare system.
Keeping people away from hospitals and doctor’s offices is central tenant of the strategy. It’s not about preventing people from getting the care they need or deciding who gets treated. The solution is to find alternative means to take care of patients who do not need the level of care provided by hospitals and intensive care facilities. One answer is telehealth, in essence, the replacing of traditional face-to-face engagements between patient and healthcare professional with digital experiences.
When a patient can have a virtual visit with a healthcare professional, they save the time driving to a facility, waiting for an appointment and potentially being exposed to the very germs they are hoping to avoid. They don’t require physical space like waiting or examination rooms. They just want to see a friendly and helpful face.
In addition to the needs of the patient, there are the needs of the healthcare system. The spread of the pandemic is not equal across locations and regions. While in some areas, healthcare professionals are overloaded, other places may have excess capacity in the moment. Telehealth eliminates the constraint of location or proximity from the healthcare equation. A virtual physician can see a patient regardless of where either party are located. If the health issue is in San Francisco, a doctor in Iowa could see patients as easily as a local doctor, greatly increasing the flexibility and scalability of the healthcare solution.
If a patient is provided with specialized technology, they can better communicate with, track and support a set of protocols given by their medical professional. They can be supported in real-time, without having to come back and visit the doctor or the facility. Consultations and treatments can happen pre, during and post diagnosis. In the case of a pandemic or even a simpler outbreak of the flu, it can be done from the safety and privacy of the patient’s own home, reducing their risk of exposure. And it frees up the facilities for those more serious cases who desperately need state-of-the-art medical facilities.
The Light at the end of the tunnel
As we live, day to day, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic and all the disruption it is causing worldwide, there is one thing for certain. Once we have the pandemic under control, we will be changed forever. We will quickly find that this event has fundamentally changed the way we will do business, manage our health, and shop. We will interact differently with each other, individually, societally and organizationally.
Many of us will not go back to working in an office full-time. Most of us will continue buying more items online. And it is likely the world of telehealth and connected healthcare will become a reality for everyone, just like we learned to buy travel on a computer instead of from a travel agent.
Global companies will reach out and find consultants to help navigate these waters. To create innovative digital experiences and products for your customers. Your preparedness will pay dividends in operational efficiency and productivity.
The Genie is out of the bottle. In this new, brave world, your success will be solely dependent on your ability to make your customers, partners and employees just a little happier every day. Their commerce and loyalty will become the currency of your success.